Parliament’s Standing Orders Committee is set to consider a wide-ranging set of proposals to improve the way Parliament goes about its business.
They range from complex proposals to alter the way Bills go through to the House to the more quixotic such as the Greens proposal that “the ringing of the bells” be replaced by recorded chirping from native birds.
Past experience of Standing Orders reviews suggests that no matter how sensible the proposals, the inbuilt inertia of MPs will prevail and nothing much will happen.
There was no better example of that than the report on Monday of the Committee on the question of whether political parties could use Parliamentary TV footage for campaign and ad purposes.
The Committee agreed that the Standing Orders around the use of Parliamentary TV coverage should be updated.
“We do not believe that members featured in PTV coverage should have the right to veto political advertising in which they are shown,” the Committee (chaired by Speaker Trevor Mallard) said.
“ Members speaking in the House are in a public place, making public comments, and it is right that they be held to account for what they say or do when speaking. “
Ironically, this was precisely the proposal that went to the Committee in 2017 but which was rejected because National dissented.
The question of the inertia of the Committee has been addressed by the New Zealand Law Society in their submission.
At their last public appearance before the Committee in 2017, the Society was represented by the former Prime Minister and constitutional lawyer, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a keen student of the Parliamentary process.
The society’s submission says it understands that by convention the Committee makes decisions based on consensus or overwhelming support.
“That convention serves to protect the minority (or minor parties and independents) so that changes to the rules of procedure are not forced through on a bare majority,” it says.
“The idea of consensus encourages a long-term approach and a recognition that the Government of today could be the Opposition of tomorrow.
“However, given it is a very high threshold, it can also operate as a form of entrenchment of current rules (which may protect or harm the minority) and limit the ability of Parliament to adapt and improve.”
The submission suggests the Committee could look at other ways of operating, including allowing changes to have a trial period after which they could be reviewed and continued or scrapped.
Many of the main submissions focus on the way Select Committees operate.
The submission of the Clerk of the House, David Wilson, devotes an entire section to Select Committees which, he says, have been reducing the inquiries and reviews they conduct.
Wilson says that when the modern Select Committee system was introduced in 1985 (under Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s stewardship) it was supposed to increase and enhance executive accountability to Parliament and the public through regular and systematic monitoring of the activities of Government departments and related organisations, and detailed investigations into specific issues over which there might be some concern.
Between 2002 and 2005 Select Committees Parliament conducted 27 inquires; but that reduced to six for the last Parliament (2014 – 2017).
Wilson proposes establishing more Committee but reducing the number of MPs on each one.
And he also subtly implies they could work harder.
Today is the 319th day of the year and Parliament has sat for 78 of those days over 26 weeks. Most Select Committees will have sat for 52 of those days.
“There are a number of factors that currently affect the effective use of select committee time,” the submission says.
“These include, but are not limited to, uneven or unpredictable workload, inflexible membership, lack of forward planning and political agreement, and poor utilisation of quieter periods.”
Wilson has proposed four additional specialist committees to deal with matters like petitions and the technical details of legislation.
But he is also proposing a Public Finance and Revenue Committee which could conduct system-wide, more in-depth, and more technical financial scrutiny, leaving subject committees to focus on the outcomes of spending and the politically important issues of the day.
In effect, this would split the role of the politically important Finance and Expenditure Committee, which is where future Finance Ministers tend to go to strut their stuff.
But the broader role of Select Committees as a means of subjecting the executive, as much as legislation, to scrutiny is canvassed in a lengthy submission from Professor Jonathan Boston, from the School of Government at Victoria University.
Boston wants to see a Select Committee established whose role would be to look at long term issues facing the country.
He cites Scotland’s Futures’ Forum as a model. He says the Speaker could chair it and include MPs as well as representatives of NGOs and other civil society institutions.
But he also advocates that the Committees be given greater resources.
Palmer’s hope was always that they might emulate the American Senate and Congressional Committees which are powerhouses within the US system as is clearly evidenced by the current Presidential impeachment hearing.
But though the Committees now have dedicated staff, they are a long way off becoming powerhouses.
The public part of what should be substantial annual hearings to review a department’s performance may last for little more than an hour.
Even substantial submitters on Bills are lucky to get more than 20 minutes.
Much of the questioning seems designed to score political points rather than to get to the bottom of an issue.
Boston suggests they could use independent experts, external reference groups, and they should monitor the progress in the implementation of their recommendations).
He advocates changes to improve how committees scrutinise the Estimates and the conduct of annual reviews and changes to enhance the quality of the advice available to select committees, especially from independent (i.e. non-governmental) sources.
“This could include increased funding for independent experts, a greater use of the resources and expertise of the Officers of Parliament, the Office of the Auditor-General and the Parliamentary Library.”
The former Speaker, Margaret Wilson, and the former Human Rights Commissioner, Judy McGregor, in a joint submission say that the Select Committee process “is the jewel of New Zealand’s parliamentary system.”
“Moves to enhance public engagement in the submission process through earlier visibility of the legislative programme, more time for written and oral submissions and improved transparency of outcomes in Select Committee reports may act to counter diminishing public trust in politics,” they say.
Both the Clerk and the Greens want a new and less political process for appointing Select Committee Chairs.
(The Greens also want a secret ballot for Speaker).
But true to form, the standout section of the Greens submission calls for the replacement of Parliament’s Bells with birdsong.
“To bring about this representation, we suggest the Standing Orders Committee consider allowing the use of native birdsong recordings in place of the current chamber bells, at the opening and close of House proceedings,” their submission says.
“ This change would bring an integral part of New Zealand’s natural and cultural identity into Parliament, to be appreciated by staff, MPs and visitors alike – and remind those across the precinct that we work for the good of all inhabitants of our shores, no matter the form they take.
“ Ideas for implementation include:
- The bird call could change each day and mirror Radio New Zealand’s 9 a.m. call
- The call could be updated each year in line with the winner of the ‘bird of the year’ competition.
- The Minister of Conservation could choose a bird call, in consultation with the parties of Parliament.”
Perhaps they could establish a Select Committee for the purpose.